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Scandinavia's Oldest Ship Burial Discovered

Archaeologists in Norway have unearthed a 1,300-year-old ship burial that pre-dates the Viking Age. It’s now the oldest known ship burial in Scandinavia and suggests an earlier start to significant Scandinavian maritime expeditions than previously believed.


Herlaugshagen burial mound, Norway
Herlaugshagen | Credit: Hanne Bryn / NTNU University Museum

Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered the ship burial within a large, grassy hill in the coastal community of Leka. Known as the Herlaugshagen burial mound, it measures 23 feet tall and 197 feet in diameter. Given its size, researchers have long suspected it contained a ship.


Ship burials were once a traditional custom that involved interring a deceased person inside their vessel and covering the ship with a dirt mound. The practice was “believed to make the person’s transition to the afterlife a safe one,” according to Artnet.


The excavation team found large rivets and pieces of wood that were once part of a vessel, and radiocarbon analysis dates the burial site to around 700 C.E. This, much to everyone's surprise, precedes the Viking Era by about a century.


The discovery shows that people who lived in the region at that time were “skilled seafarers” who could build big ships “much earlier than we previously thought,” says Geir Grønnesby, an archaeologist at the university’s museum and the project manager for this summer’s excavation.


The discovery has lead experts to question why such a large ship was built. One answer could be an earlier start to significant Scandinavian maritime expeditions than previously believed.

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